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Hooniverse Asks: Does Hydrogen have a future in the automotive realm?

Jeff Glucker October 11, 2018 Hooniverse Asks 29 Comments

This morning, I’m in Hollywood to drive a pair of new models from Hyundai. Each one represents a different path on the way clean running cars. One is the Kona EV while the other is called Nexo. It’s the former that has me questioning, quite simply, why?

Nexo is a crossover. That part makes tons of (dollars) and sense. The other bit I’m stuck on, however, is that the Nexo is a fuel-cell powered vehicle. Hyundai learned a lot with its Tuscon FCEV and the Nexo reportedly improves upon the older car.

Still, why hydrogen? I understand its benefits but the infrastructure just is not there. While here in Hollywood, I’m going to try and figure out why Hyundai wants to spotlight fuel-cell vehicles.

Do you see a future automotive landscape where hydrogen vehicles hum alongside pure electrics?

  • Sjalabais

    This 40 year old bit of the future is well-known, isn’t it?:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=TjfONpsFvyM
    I don’t believe it is impossible to overcome the infrastructure issues this poses, especially in densely populated areas. But I believe mankind as a species to be as dumb as smart, sort of evening out technological prowess and progressive thinking with impulses of the “look, it explodes”-kind. Thinking of Hindenburg and the occasional mishap with this technology, might be enough to tip the scale in its disfavour. Especially given that this is just one more way to build a “battery”, seeing how hydrogen requires a bit energy input up front, and competing electric battery tech is improving rapidly right now.

  • HuntRhymesWith

    No. I’m sure you’ve heard the classic line, “Hydrogen is the fuel of the future. And always will be.”
    Not enough energy density, and setting up the infrastructure is more costly than electric. Plus, a majority of our H2 is made from cracking fossil fuels today. The alternative is splitting water to H2 and O2, which is going to always involve loss of energy, especially considering modern catalysts leave a lot of overpotential.
    The future is battery tech that doesn’t have a resource bottleneck, e.g. Cobalt in Li+ cells.
    Or, who knows, maybe some breakthrough zero-overpotential water oxidation catalyst will be discovered. Even then, I’d much rather see a zero-overpotential CO2 reduction catalyst, that way you could pull CO2 out of the atmosphere (climate change rewind).

  • 0A5599

    Hydrogen vehicles are nothing new.

    https://usercontent2.hubstatic.com/12747761_f520.jpg

  • smalleyxb122

    Not until cold fusion.

  • Anton Maes

    These are really properly thought of as electric vehicles with hydrogen range extenders as they have pretty significant battery power on board.

    Looking at the already extremely low fuel consumption of many plug in hybrid owners it makes me really question if it’s worth it to change out all that infrastructure to maybe reduce emissions of a vehicle getting >70mpg. PHEVs yes, FCEV no

    But as battery prices continue to fall, we’re rapidly approaching the point where long range pure EVs will be cheaper to produce than PHEVs, with better performance due to having a battery that can deliver more power.

  • neight428

    The sticky wicket with these ideas always seems to be scale and profitability. It took a century for the infrastructure and supply chain that supports gasoline and diesel powered vehicles to get this efficient. If there is a simpler way to produce easily portable and replenished energy more efficiently at a price people are willing to pay, it would be interesting to see, and given the size of the prize, I don’t balme anyone for pursuing it. Batteries are getting their day in the market with opulent incentives for manufacturers and consumers helping to make them palatable compared to gasoline and diesel fuels that are taxed all up and down the value chain. Fuel cells seem to have another layer or five of complexity, but it’s there as a theoretical option. Vehicle emissions are a high profile political thing, but in the climate models, they are a drop in the bucket and aren’t going to do much to address whatever it is they are trying to accomplish.

    • I do agree with your core points, I just wanted to remark that it didn’t take a century to make the fuel infrastructure efficient. There was certainly optimization all the time, but it was profitable since Bertha Benz bought her fuel at a pharmacy.

      • neight428

        Agreed, though I was referring more to the industry going from Bertha in her pharmacy to a billion active users worldwide, managing both scale and profitability together. If there is some boutique demand that gets things kicked off, the optimization and scaling can build momentum from there and off you go. Seems there is a lot of effort (and money) trying to get alternative fuel vehicles over a scaling/profitability hump of indeterminate height.

  • Jeff Glucker

    So I can’t yet tell you how the Nexo drives, but I will say my eyes are a bit more open to the *potential* for FCEVs.

    The immediate scalability is intriguing, especially compared to current battery tech. Also, a FCEV has a few tricks that a BEV can’t pull off since it generates power on board as opposed to storing power. Some neat stuff. I can tell you more about the Nexo specifically on the 15th…

  • Lokki

    I just can’t imagine a scenario (within the next 100 years) where hydrogen technology advances enough to make it viable for vehicles and other vehicle energy sources don’t make enough advances to stay ahead of it.

    Energy.gov does a much better job of outlining the hurdles for hydrogen than I can.

    https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-storage-challenges

    To be fair though, I apparently have a terrible imagination. I never imagined that electric cars would be anything more than a niche and a fashion statement, and Tesla has sold something like a quarter million cars, so hydrogen has that going for it.

    • neight428

      Don’t knock fashionable niches, there’s a big market for that. Any of the automakers could have made the Tesla vehicles, but their investors wouldn’t put up with them losing that much cash. Tesla worked with a blank check from investors starting from more or less nothing (which is a business miracle in and of itself), hopefully management can make it work before the market’s patience runs out.

  • I thought by now CNG (compressed natural gas) would be more poplar. This country (USA) has an abunance of the stuff and there is a much better infrastucture in place than for electric cars. 40 years ago New Orleans Airport shuttle vans were using CNG successfully. I rode on one from the airport to hotel. I watched a Jay Leno Garage video in which J,T. Nessbitt showed his custom CNG car after a transcontinental trip. Any ideas?

    • Sjalabais

      The amount of CNG/LPG cars on the road is high in some countries like Italy or Russia:
      https://gazeo.com/up-to-date/news/2017/Record-breaking-registrations-of-LPG-CNG-cars,article,9986.html
      I remember the Volvo Flexifuel from the late 90s that would swallow petrol, gas and french fries oil. Gas was touted as a friendly option with an existing infrastructure and cost 15-25% below the standard diesel and petrol choices. The real sales numbers are a bit disappointing though, and in countries that have announced a ban of fossil fuel vehicle sales (like The Netherlands for 2030), gas cars are included.

    • Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. (That said, it’s more efficient, AFAICT, to burn natural gas in an ICE, than to steam reform it into hydrogen and run that hydrogen through a fuel cell and an electric motor…)

      That said, the CNG network in the US is pretty pathetic compared to what’s available for electrics: https://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels/natural_gas_locations.html#/find/nearest?fuel=CNG

      Compare to the DC fast charging networks that a Tesla can use (and this is probably outdated): https://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels/natural_gas_locations.html#/find/nearest?fuel=ELEC&ev_levels=dc_fast&ev_connectors=NEMA1450&ev_connectors=NEMA515&ev_connectors=NEMA520&ev_connectors=J1772&ev_connectors=CHADEMO&ev_connectors=TESLA

      (I put it like that because if you remove the Tesla network that’s currently only available to Teslas, the charging network is a joke… but if you *DO* have a Tesla, you can’t use CCS, so I unchecked that.)

      Of course, there’s also… in practice you can’t safely refill a natural gas car at home (the home refilling unit that Honda used to sell was recalled due to poor gas quality causing tank damage, as I understand), whereas if you’ve got a garage, you can probably recharge an EV at home, which is a huge improvement in infrastructure availability.

      • outback_ute

        I think there are basically only heavy vehicles running on CNG in Australia, but LPG was quite popular, and I would have thought that it would be possible to install CNG gear to fuel stations if the demand was there.

        I was told about a guy who converted a 48-seat coach into a motor home and CNG. He installed enough tanks to drive from Darwin to Perth apparently (2500 miles), because there wasn’t anywhere to refuel in between.

    • neight428

      If I remember what I read about the fundamentals there, it takes some fairly high pressures (or gigantic tanks) to make it work comparably to gasoline, and refilling to those pressures quickly takes some horrendous compression equipment. For a fleet of big trucks with room for big tanks that stay parked overnight, it is a compelling option given the price of natural gas in places.

  • Wu-Chi Kai

    China and Korea think so. And they are committed to it so it really doesn’t matter what the rest of the world does. See “Made in China 2025”. Did ya hear about that H2 train in Germany?

  • Gnomical

    Why are we intent on using non-renewable resources for something like fuel that is consumed in its use? Is that task not best left to renewable resources? Why not use non-renewable resources for tasks that we want to endure beyond one generation – say a house, a canal, a road, etc. – even a good sports car?

    • I agree with you. Unfortunately what oil that isn’t used for fuel is used to make plastics that last way more than a generation, like bottles and diapers. Wish we had better long range priorities.

      • Van_Sarockin

        Done right, plastics can be recycled for continuing reuse.

  • Van_Sarockin

    I just saw Toyotas Miraij display. Shiny. What struck me was that the fuel tank is about 5/8″ thick fiberglass composite. This reminds me of all the energy required to compress/liquefy the hydrogen so you have any appreciable capacity, and that there is essentially no container that can retain hydrogen over time. This is in addition to all the other, nontrivial problems it has.

  • crank_case

    In the words of the Gallagher Brothers… Definitely Maybe..

    It’s not really the cars that are the problem, it’s making hydrogen. Most commercial hydrogen comes from natural gas right now, so it’s a fossil fuel EV. That experiment in high school chemistry where you used to run electricity through water and create hydrogen and oxygen? Great, but not scaleable or profitable in the real world…yet.

    However the big mistake the sort of irritating evangelists who bleat about the march of “Technology” and just assume battery EVs and self driving are inevitable as the only way forward (which is becoming a self fulfilling prophesy because of belief ratther than pragmatic assessment of technology) is that technology is not a constant upgrade cycle like your smarphone OS, it goes in unpredictable fits and starts, someone discovers something in a lab, but it can take anything from weeks to centuries for a scientific discovery to translate to commercial product. Perfect example – why did we not have bicycles in the 1600s? Nothing complicated about them, very simple mechanisms, the reason is we simply did not have the materials – steel and rubber. Sometimes we know something can work, but it takes a while for all the links in the chain to come together.

    With decentralized power generation, it may make sense, just lots of little stations tipping away off solar, not particularly efficient, but not high impact either and you can just let them sit the taking in the suns energy.